How people argue

History and Orientation

Argumentation exists from way before the 19th century, where the Aristotle’s logical theory is found first. This indicates that argumentation was an important factor already in society. Until the 1950s, the approach of argumentation was based on rhetoric and logic. In the United States debating and argumentation became an important subject on universities and colleges. Textbooks appeared on ‘Principles of Argumentation’ (Pierce, 1895). In the 1960s and 1970s Perelman and Toulmin were the most influential writers on argumentation. Perelman tried to find a description of techniques of argumentation used by people to obtain the approval of others for their opinions. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca called this ‘new rhetoric’. Toulmin, the other influential writer developed his theory (starting in 1950’s) in order to explain how argumentation occurs in the natural process of an everyday argument. He called his theory ‘the uses of argument’.

Argumentation theory cannot be seen as the theory for argumentation. Various authors have used the argumentation theory all in a slightly different way; it is not to say which version is the most developed.

Core Assumptions and Statements

‘Argumentation is a verbal and social activity of reason aimed at increasing (or decreasing) the acceptability of a controversial standpoint for the listener or reader, by putting forward a constellation of propositions intended to justify (or refute) the standpoint before a rational judge’ (Van Eemeren et al, 1996). Argumentation is a verbal activity, most often in an ordinary language. In argumentation people use words and sentences to argue, to state or to deny etc. Nonverbal communication is accompanied with verbal communication in argumentation and can play an important role. Furthermore, argumentation is a social activity, which in principle is directed to other people. Argumentation is also an activity of reason, when people put forward their arguments in argumentation they place their considerations within the realm of reason. Argumentation is always related to a standpoint. An opinion itself is not enough; arguments are needed when people differ on a standpoint. Finally, the goal of argumentation is to justify one’s standpoint or to refute someone else’s.

The version of Van Eemeren and Grootendorst of the argumentation theory, the pragma-dialectical theory, is currently most popular. They began to study argumentation as a means of resolving differences of opinion. Argumentation starts with four principles. 1) Externalization: Argumentation needs a standpoint and an opposition to the standpoint. Therefore, argumentation research concentrates on the externalizable commitments rather than the psychological elements of people. 2) Socialization: arguments are seen as an expression of people’s processes. Crucial is to validate the arguer’s position by arguments in a certain way. Two people try to obtain an agreement in argumentation; therefore argumentation is part of a social context rather than an individual context. 3) Functionalization: Argumentation has the general function of managing the resolution of disagreement. Studying of argumentation should concentrate on the function of argumentation in the verbal management of disagreement. 4) Dialectification: Argumentation is appropriate only when you are able to use arguments that are able to help you arguing against another person. For resolving differences a theory on argumentation should have a set of standards. The term dialectical procedure is mentioned as a depending element on efficient arguing on solving differences.

Van Eemeren and Grootendorst identify various stages of argumentative dialogue. 1) Confrontation: Presentation of the problem, such as a debate question or a political disagreement. 2) Opening: Agreement on rules, such as for example, how evidence is to be presented, which sources of facts are to be used, how to handle divergent interpretations, determination of closing conditions. 3) Argumentation: Application of logical principles according to the agreed-upon rules. 4) Concluding: When closing conditions are met. These could be for example, a time limitation or the determination of an arbiter. Note that these stages are indispensable.

Argumentation analysis of persuasive messages

Schellens uses a typology which differentiates between restricted and unrestricted argumentation schemes. Restricted schemes are limited to a certain conclusion. The group restricted argumentation schemes can be divided into three different parts 1) Regularity-based argumentation (Schellens, 1985: 77-102): used in support of a descriptive statement about the present, the past or the future. Argumentation is given for a proposition of a factual or descriptive nature on the basis of a regularly recurring empirical link. 2) Rule-based argumentation (Schellens, 1985: 115-151; see also Gottlieb 1968 on rule-guided reasoning: used in support of a normative statement about the value of a situation or process. Arguments are given for a statement of a normative nature 3) Pragmatic argumentation: leading to a statement about the desirability of intended behavior. A position on the desirability of a given action, behavior or measure is advocated on the basis of its advantages and/or disadvantages. (Schellens, 1985: 153-178; see also Walton 1996: 75-77).

In addition to these restricted argumentation schemes, Schellens also distinguishes three unrestricted forms; argumentation from authority, argumentation from example and argumentation from analogy. These schemas are not limited to a conclusion of a type, but have a wider application.

Conceptual Model

Toulmin uses a model of argumentation for his ‘uses for argument’. See: Toulmin, S. The Uses of Argument (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958).

Favorite Methods

Observation, content/argument analysis.

Scope and Application

Argumentation theory is an interdisciplinary field which attracts attention from philosophers, logicians, linguists, legal scholars, speech communication theorists, etc. The theory is grounded in conversational, interpersonal communication, but also applies to group communication and written communication. De Jong & Schellens (2004) illustrate the possibilities of argumentation analysis in the context of public information.


To be added.


Key publications

  • Toulmin, S. (1959). The uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Van Eemeren & Grootendorst (2004). A systematic theory of argumentation. The pragma-dialected approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Eemeren, F.H. van, Grootendorst, R. & Snoeck Henkemans, F. et al (1996). Fundamentels of Argumentation Theory. A Handbook of Historical Backgrounds and Contemporary Developments. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Eemeren, F.H. van, R.Grootendorst, S.Jackson, & S.Jacobs. 1993. Reconstructing Argumentative Discourse. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P.
  • Gross, Alan G. 1990. The Rhetoric of Science. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. 1984. The Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Vol.1. Boston: Beacon.
  • Williams, David Cratis, and Michael David Hazen, eds. 1990. Argumentation Theory and the Rhetoric of Assent. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P.
  • Alexy, R. (1989). A theory of legal argumentation: The theory of rational discourse as theory of legal justification (R. Adler & N. MacCormick, Trans.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Original German edition copyright 1978)
  • Aarnio, A., Alexy, R. & Peczenik, A. (1981). The foundation of legal reasoning. Rechtstheorie 21,, 133-158, 257-279, 423-448.
  • Eemeren, F.H. van, R. Grootendorst (1992). Argumentation, communication, and fallacies. A pragma-dialectical perspective. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Feteris, E.T. (1990). 'Conditions and rules for rational discussion in a legal process: A pragma-dialectical perspective'. Argumentation and Advocacy. Journal of the American Forensic Association. Vol. 26, No. 3, p. 108-117.
  • Feteris, E.T. (1993). 'Rationality in legal discussions: A pragma-dialectical perspective'. Informal Logic, Vol. XV, No. 3, p. 179-188.
  • Kloosterhuis, H. (1994). 'Analysing analogy argumentation in judicial decisions'. In: F.H. van
  • Eemeren and R. Grootendorst (eds.), Studies in pragma-dialectics. Amsterdam: Sic Sat, p. 238-246.
  • Peczenik, A. (1983). The basis of legal justification. Lund.
  • Schellens, P.J. (1985). Redelijke argumenten. Een onderzoek naar normen voor kritische lezers. (Reasonable arguments. A study in criteria for critical reading.) Ph.D. Dissertation. Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht. Dordrecht: Foris.
  • Gottlieb, G. (1968). The logic of choice. An investigation of the concepts of rule and rationality. London: Allen und Unwin.
  • Perelman, Ch & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric. A treatise on argumentation. Notre Dame/ London: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Hastings, A.C. (1962). A reformulation of the modes of reasoning in argumentation. Ph.D. Dissertation. Northwestern University, Evanston, III.
  • Freeley, A.J. (1976). Argumentation and debate. Rational decision making. (4th edition) Belmont, Calif.:Wadsworth.
  • Eemeren, F.H. & Grootendorst, R. (1992). Argumentation, communication, and fallacies. A pragma-dialectical perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Garssen, B. (2001). Argument Schemes. In F.H. van Eemeren (Ed.) Crucial concepts in argumentation theory. (pp. 81-99). Amsterdam University Press.

See also Language Theories and Linguistics